One of the least enjoyable weeks of the NFL calendar is upon us — roster cutdown time. Shortly after Thursday’s final preseason games, teams will start axing dozens of players, reducing rosters from 90 players to 53 (the deadline is Saturday at 4 p.m.).
Coaches and general managers won’t just take a player’s football abilities into account. It’s a large factor, but so are a player’s financials — how much the team already has paid him, how he fits into the team’s salary cap, and the cap consequences of cutting a player.
One of the biggest considerations is whether a player is a “vested veteran” — someone with four or more years of NFL service. Vested veterans get their entire 2019 salary guaranteed if they are on the Week 1 roster. But this can work against them, too. Players with three or fewer seasons do not have such guarantees and offer more financial flexibility, as they don’t get paid for a week unless they are on the roster at 4 p.m. each Tuesday.
Let’s take a look at some of the Patriots’ tightest position battles, and see how the financials may impact their choices:
■ Quarterback: What to do with veteran Brian Hoyer? The Patriots already paid him $200,000 in March, but that is relatively nothing in the NFL. Hoyer, a vested veteran, has a $2.8 million base salary this year, of which $1.51 million is fully guaranteed, even if the Patriots release him.
But the $1.51 million guarantee comes with offset language, which reduces the Patriots’ obligation if Hoyer signs with another team. Let’s say the Patriots release Hoyer, and he signs with Detroit for the veteran minimum of $1.03 million. The Patriots would then only owe Hoyer the remaining $480,000 of his guarantee. If Hoyer signs with Detroit in midseason and only makes $500,000 for eight weeks, the Patriots owe the remaining $1.01 million.
No team wants to pay money to a player to not play football, but the Patriots’ obligation to Hoyer is minimal and shouldn’t prevent them from moving on.
■ Wide receiver: Phillip Dorsett already has been paid $600,000 this year, which would be the amount of dead cap money the Patriots must take if they release him. Dorsett also has $1.5 million in salary and $1.4 million in bonuses and incentives. He’s a vested veteran, and costs more than the rookies. But the Patriots have also sunk some money into Dorsett, and his contract is reasonable for a smart, veteran player who knows the offense.
Demaryius Thomas came off the physically unable to perform list this past week, but I don’t know if he’s a lock. The Patriots have only paid him $300,000 so far, and he still has $5.7 million ahead — a $1.2 million base salary, $1.5 million in bonuses, and $3 million in incentives. Thomas is a vested veteran, which could work against him. But if the Patriots feel confident in his return from a torn Achilles’, they could have an experienced receiver at a decent price.
The other receivers aren’t vested. Maurice Harris, Braxton Berrios, Jakobi Meyers (who is likely making the team), and Gunner Olszewski are all minimum-salary, minimum-dead money guys. Having a low salary can work for them — but the Patriots can also release them with almost no financial penalty.
The Patriots also paid Dontrelle Inman $300,000 before releasing him this past week.
■ Defensive line: Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise, and Keionta Davis are each making minimum salaries this year, with Rivers carrying $400,000 in dead money, Wise carrying about $290,000, and Davis carrying none. Basically, it will cost the Patriots nothing to keep them around, nor much to release any of them.
The more interesting battle is at defensive tackle between Danny Shelton and Mike Pennel, both vested veterans. In the offseason, the clear winner was Pennel — his deal was worth up to $3.9 million this year, and the Patriots have already paid him $600,000. Shelton, meanwhile, signed for a minimum salary and a measly $75,000 signing bonus. But Shelton has played with the starters during the preseason, while Pennel has been relegated to the third team. The Patriots have incentive to keep Pennel because of the money already paid out, but more incentive to keep Shelton because he is cheaper during the season.
■ Linebacker: Jamie Collins has only been paid $250,000, and had to make the team this camp. But he has played very well this August, and his contract is low-risk, high-reward. Collins’s base salary is just $900,000, and he has another $3.85 million in bonuses and incentives. Collins still has to earn most of his money this year.
For the backup spot, the Patriots must determine if Elandon Roberts is worth significantly more than the others. Roberts is due a $2.025 million salary this year, with only $25,089 in dead money, which makes it easy to move on. Meanwhile, Christian Sam, Shilique Calhoun, and Terez Hall are all minimum-salary, minimum-dead money players. But Roberts played with the starters on Thursday night, and the Patriots seem to like their fourth-year linebacker.
■ Cornerback: The Patriots have a bit of a logjam, with Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, and Joejuan Williams guaranteed spots. Jonathan Jones has a $3.095 million salary with no dead money, making him a trade candidate. Duke Dawson, last year’s second-round pick, hasn’t done much yet, but it might make sense to keep him around — he’s only making $695,676 this year, and has $1.15 million in dead money. Keion Crossen is also a minimum-salary guy with only $57,000 in dead money.
■ Special teams: Punter Ryan Allen wasn’t set to make much more than minimum this year, but the Patriots still released him this past week in favor of rookie Jake Bailey, whose cap number of $567,520 is about $1 million less than Allen’s would have been. Allen’s release cost just $100,000 in cash and dead money.
Newcomer Terrence Brooks already has received $595,000 in bonuses, and his $805,000 salary is fully guaranteed, so he should be considered a lock.
HAZARDS OF THE BUSINESS
Preseason means costly injuries
NFL teams have gotten smarter in recent years about saving players’ bodies in training camp and reducing injuries in preseason. The Rams and Broncos are each resting their starters this weekend for their third preseason games. The Packers sat most players on Thursday night when the field in Winnipeg had an issue. The Colts not only are holding out most of their starters on Saturday, they’re holding Jacoby Brissett out, too.
But injuries are still unavoidable in a full-contact sport, and several key players around the league are dealing with injuries.
The biggest one may be to Chargers second-year safety Derwin James, who will be out about three months after suffering a stress fracture in his foot. The Chargers are hopeful that James can return from injured reserve for the final month of the season, but they will have to make do for most of the year without their star defensive player, who was named first-team All-Pro as a rookie.
The Panthers got a scare on Thursday night when Cam Newton left their game against the Patriots with a foot injury after just two series. Newton had his foot checked on the sideline then went to the locker room, not to be seen for the rest of the night. But Newton reportedly has just a mild sprain, and the Panthers are hopeful he will be ready for Week 1.
The scariest injury may have come to Washington tight end Jordan Reed, whose six-year career has been marred by concussions. Reed, who has had at least five documented concussions, suffered another brutal blow on Thursday night against the Falcons and was evaluated for a head injury. This was Reed’s first documented concussion since 2016, but he may have to prioritize his long-term health over football pretty soon.
The Broncos planned on starting Joe Flacco over Drew Lock anyway, but now he won’t have Lock breathing down his neck. Lock injured the thumb on his throwing hand against the 49ers, and coach Vic Fangio said Lock is a candidate to start the season on injured reserve, which would keep him out at least eight weeks.
Bills center Mitch Morse, one of their big free agent prizes this offseason, is dealing with a concussion. The Packers may have lost receiver Equanimeous St. Brown to a serious leg injury on Thursday night, and first-round pick Rashan Gary was carted off as well, though it may have just been a precaution. And Colts running back D’Onta Foreman is out for the year with a torn biceps.
Dolphins’ Flores has Stills’s back
Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills, one of the few players who continues to kneel during the national anthem to protest social injustice, has not been quiet about his feelings in recent weeks. He criticized Dolphins owner Stephen Ross for holding a fundraiser for President Trump, and last week was critical of rapper Jay-Z for partnering with the NFL and trying to sanitize the league’s image in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s blackballing.
So it was interesting to see that the day after Stills criticized Jay-Z, the Dolphins played eight straight Jay-Z songs at practice.
It sure looked like new coach Brian Flores was trolling Stills, or telling him where he can take his protests. This was a precarious move by Flores, who ran the risk of alienating many players who support Stills.
But Flores finally explained himself on Thursday, and said he was just trying to test Stills’s mental toughness.
“After the playlist was done, what you guys don’t know is I walked up to Kenny in front of the entire group and said, this is a challenge to you to get open, catch the football, and make plays for this team regardless of what’s going on outside of this building,” Flores said. “The next day — because there was a lot more attention paid to this than I ever would have imagined — I got up in front of the team and I told them that I support Kenny. I support the player protests. I mean, quite honestly, they’re bringing attention to my story.
“I’m the son of immigrants. I’m black. I grew up poor. I grew up in New York during the stop-and-frisk era, so I’ve been stopped because I fit a description before. So everything that these guys protest, I’ve lived it. I’ve experienced it. So, yeah, I applaud those guys who protest. So whether it’s Kaepernick or Eric Reid or Kenny, I applaud those guys. I told Kenny that in our meeting, in front of the team.
“But you know what else is important to me? That guys perform. There’s 89 guys in that locker room who are counting on Kenny to get open, catch the football, and perform for this team, and that’s important to me. If anybody’s got a problem with that, then we’ve just got a problem . . . It was a challenge to Kenny to perform regardless of whatever’s going on outside. I would say — and I’ve said this to him — he hasn’t performed to that level over the course of this training camp as I’ve seen him. So that was a challenge.”
Browns receiving lots of attention
The Browns are doing their best to tick off the rest of the league. Baker Mayfield told Complex Sports two weeks ago that “people want to see us lose, just because the hype is so real.” Then this past week, GQ published an interview in which Mayfield seemed to rip the Giants for drafting Daniel Jones with the No. 6 overall pick.
Browns first-year coach Freddie Kitchens tried to deflect the attention.
“I don’t know what a bull’s-eye is. Anybody know?” he said. “If they’re not trying to beat our ass and we’re not trying to beat their ass, I don’t know what else you do. Our team’s going to block out the noise. You guys create noise, they’re going to block it out. GQ creates the noise, they’re going to block it out. Sports Illustrated creates the noise, they’re going to block it out. I have total confidence they’ll block out the noise.”
On paper, the Browns look stacked — give Bill Belichick this roster, and he’d go 16-0. But this is still the Browns, where things always go wrong. Kitchens will either be a coaching genius this year, or this will all blow up spectacularly.
First the NFL had the turf fiasco in Mexico City last year. Now it had a field issue in Winnipeg for Packers-Raiders on Thursday night, when a goal post removed from the front of the end zone (for the CFL) created a large hole in the ground. Officials decided to play on an 80-yard field, and the Packers held most of their starters out of the game. It is simply amazing that a $14 billion industry has these type of Mickey Mouse problems with the field. Add in the fact that only two-thirds of the 33,000-seat stadium was full because of exorbitant ticket prices, and the Winnipeg preseason experiment was executed horribly . . . Hope that Donald Trump fundraiser was worth it for Stephen Ross, the Dolphins’ $7 billion owner. It sullied the reputation of Ross’s nonprofit organization that seeks to combat racial discrimination, with RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford telling ESPN that she was uncomfortable with Ross holding the fundraiser. And the event also cost Ross a seat at the table in the NFL’s social justice initiative with the Players Coalition. Chris Long said this past week that Ross was removed from the group, though the Dolphins say Ross left on his own . . . Chargers running back Melvin Gordon racked up close to $1 million in fines for skipping training camp ($30,000 for each day skipped), and will cost himself about $330,000 for every week of the regular season he misses. The Chargers can always forgive the fines, but not the missed salary . . . Why does Jerry Jones keep openly taunting Ezekiel Elliott when it comes to his contract negotiation? It won’t help encourage Elliott or anyone else in the Cowboys’ locker room to take team-friendly deals . . . Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts, who called the “Miami Miracle” last year for CBS, will once again call Patriots-Dolphins from South Florida in Week 2 . . . Wearing a new, approved helmet during warm-ups before the Raiders’ preseason game against the Cardinals, Antonio Brown was heard by the “Hard Knocks” cameras telling his teammate that his helmet looked “ugly as [expletive].” Is Brown’s helmet squabble really just about aesthetics? We’re seeing more and more why the Steelers were willing to wreck their salary cap to get rid of Brown.